ATLANTA -- Not long after the Atlanta Hawks eliminated the Celtics on Thursday night, Kent Bazemore sat in a cramped TD Garden visitors locker room with a sizable crowd of reporters and cameras around him.
“Damn, [he's] over there like LeBron!” teammate Jeff Teague cracked as the Hawks point guard had the path to his nearby locker stall blocked by the Bazemore media throng.
The next question to Bazemore happened to be about facing James again in a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference finals, starting on Monday.
Teague smiled and chimed in, “Heyyyyy” before intently listening for Bazemore’s answer.
“I’m ready,” Bazemore said of seeing James, who led the Cavs to a four-game sweep of the Hawks last spring. “I’m excited. We got a rematch from last year. They swept us so ... [we] definitely have a chip on our shoulder about that.”
When it comes to James, Bazemore seems to have a LeBron-sized chip on his shoulder. Whether it was shoving James off of him in Game 2 last year or posting less-than-flattering tweets about James back in 2010 when Bazemore was at Old Dominion, he clearly shows no trepidation when it comes to one of the game’s all-time physically imposing players.
Bazemore respects James, but he clearly won’t bow down to King James, as evidenced by this tweet from 2012.
“Lebron is equivalent to 7eleven,” Bazemore tweeted to someone else on his @24Bazemore account. “He doesn’t close ... ”
Bazemore, who is a die-hard Under Armour client, also was recently quoted as saying that he hoped to face a less-friendly James due to the Under Armour-Nike sneaker rivalry.
For an undrafted swingman, Bazemore isn’t afraid to poke The King.
“Yeah, whatever helps you wake up in the morning,” Bazemore said on Saturday when asked about not shying away from James. “... You got to amp yourself up and you can’t go in humble, I guess. You got to make yourself angry and do whatever you got to do to accept that challenge, because he is a freight train and brings it and comes with everything he has, so you have to do the same to hang in there.
“I love to compete,” he added. “However it comes out, maybe it’s those tweets from 2010, 2011 that resurface. But it’s for the love of the game. This game has opened a lot of doors and I get to guard and have some photos with one of the best players that ever touched the basketball and can show my kids one day. It is all fun and games.”
Bazemore was respectful of James on Saturday as the Hawks continued preparations for their rematch with the Cavaliers, who host Game 1 on Monday. After all, the Hawks really can’t say anything disparaging about James, who demolished them in the East finals last year.
James averaged 30.3 points, 11.0 rebounds and 9.3 assists in those four games. And in two regular-season meetings in April against Atlanta, James torched the Hawks for an average of 31.5 points, 11 rebounds and 7.5 assists in the Cavs' wins. During one of those wins, on April 1, James attempted to take a charge on a soaring Bazemore, who was ready to throw down a thunderous one-handed dunk but took a frightening spill after James slid in front and underneath him.
“No,” Bazemore said when asked if there’s any dislike with James from his end. “I respect him. He has opened the doors for a lot of young African-Americans like myself. He has done a lot for the game. He has taken it globally. He has actually gotten me a couple of followers on Twitter and social media.”
The pleasant-natured Bazemore smiled when asked if he was referring to those tweets from 2010 and 2012.
“Yeah,” Bazemore said. “He has done a lot for the game of basketball and you can’t [underestimate] that, and I respect that. But by the same token, he is an opponent and we are not teammates -- so if he falls, I won’t help him up.”
Bazemore has brought a certain toughness and attitude to the Hawks, who believe they are playing their best defense in the past two years and are a better team than the one Cleveland saw last postseason.
Of course, smothering 5-foot-9 Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas is one thing. Trying to slow down the 6-8, 250-pound James might as well be “Mission Impossible” for Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer.
“That is what we tried to do in the last series with [James], and he just found every shooter and they 3-pointed us to death,” Atlanta’s Kyle Korver said of trying to send multiple defenders at James as the Hawks did with Thomas to get the ball out of his hands. “... You can’t give [James] angles. You can’t give him easy baskets, momentum plays.
"He’s too big, strong and too good. You can’t shade him one way. You can’t force him one way. You just got to square your shoulders at his shoulders and try to make it tough on him, and even if you do that he probably is still going to get 30 points.”
The 6-5, 201-pound Bazemore gives up quite a bit of size to James, as does almost every other wing defender in the league. And while Bazemore has taken on difficult defensive tasks this season for the Hawks, he knows Atlanta might be best-served by throwing multiple defenders and looks at James.
“It is LeBron James,” Bazemore said. “And I’m Kent Bazemore. It is a huge opportunity [for me] obviously, but I can’t really focus on a mano-a-mano matchup.”
But Korver says Bazemore is “light years” ahead of where he was a year ago, when he was forced to play heavy minutes for the first time in the postseason in Games 3 and 4 against James due to injuries to the Hawks.
When Bazemore first came into the league, he was “raw,” Korver said of the four-year veteran who will be a free agent this summer. “All these arms, talent, energy and passion for the game. But he had to learn a lot.”
Bazemore, who averaged 14 points and 7.0 rebounds in the first round, is now a full-time starter for the Hawks and is ready to face James again in the playoffs.
It wasn’t that long ago that Bazemore remembers being part of what was then the largest crowd to ever watch a high school game in North Carolina when James and his St. Vincent-St. Mary’s team visited Greensboro in 2003.
“He is obviously one of the greatest players to ever play the game,” Bazemore said. “Here I am, watching him [while] growing up. I remember watching him when he was in high school in Greensboro against Reyshawn Terry -- a game I will never forget. He was amazing.
“It is great to see life come full circle and you actually have the opportunity to play against somebody you watched growing up.”